On Tuesday, this week, German troops arrived in Lithuania as a part of a multinational NATO battalion that was deployed to beef up the security along NATO’s European Eastern Front. The battalion is also comprised of troops from Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, and it is one of four NATO assigned battalions on rotation to Lithuania. The deployment of NATO troops coincides with Russia’s “Zapad 2017,” which translates to “West 2017” that is a massive joint war game exercise between Russia and Belarus (currently Russia’s only credible military ally in Europe). Zapad 2017 will be the largest military exercise held along the Baltic states borders, with many Eastern European countries interpreting this as a show of Russian military might in an effort to intimidate NATO and its allies in the region. Lithuania’s President, Dalia Grybauskaite, has stated that Zapad 2017 is a “demonstrative preparation for war with the West” and went on to state that the deployment of NATO troops in Lithuania “significantly strengthens NATO’s deterrence posture during an ongoing military build-up around our borders and aggressive actions in our region.”
This current deployment of NATO troops to Lithuania is the most recent example of an increase in military forces in Eastern Europe as NATO and Russia appear to become more blatant in their posturing on the continent. In general, NATO allies are fearful of Russia engaging in an aggressive territorial expansion policy, pointing to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and, more recently, Russia’s deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in the heavily militarized Kaliningrad exclave, which borders Lithuania and Poland, as evidence of Russia’s intent. In response, NATO and its allies have steadily increased the presence of troops on the continent, especially in the most Eastern countries like Lithuania, Poland, and Estonia. In recent weeks, a total of 4,000 soldiers, 2000 tanks, numerous field guns, jeeps, and lorries have traveled through Germany towards Eastern Europe. Germany’s Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, has stated that this increase in military presence in the region “sends a clear and important message to all: NATO stands strong and united.”
While the current exercise of deploying NATO battalions to Eastern Europe certainly gives the impression of NATO’s unity, there are undoubtedly feelings of uncertainty regarding the commitment of some NATO members, primarily America’s with Donald Trump as President. In 2002, in Vilnius City Hall George Bush claimed that “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.” However, fast-forward to 2017, and while his foreign policy intentions require clarification, Trump has indicated his displeasure with America’s current commitments to foreign institutions and the need for America to “renegotiate the terms” of these commitments. With America being a key contributor to NATO, their exit would severely undermine NATO’s perceived effectiveness at providing security on the European continent. Countries, like Lithuania, appear to understand this potential consequence and have started taking steps to validify their posture. Lithuania has reintroduced conscription, started rebuilding its standing army and has invested heavily in its military by purchasing half a billion Euros worth of German-made armored vehicles, artillery, and military trucks over the past few years.
With so many uncertainties in the political sphere and the increasingly aggressive posturing occurring between Russia and NATO, it is likely that Eastern Europe will continue to become increasingly militarized, thus continuing to represent a global security threat.